Last week we published the first of three blog posts on the election manifestos. That post looked at what the main political parties were promising for UK research and innovation. In this, our second blog post on the manifestos, we examine each of the main parties’ education policies to see how they compare with our Vision for science and maths education and look at what the manifestos say about higher education.

Our Vision for science and maths education

Students learning science and mathsThe UK is a world leader in science and engineering. To maintain and capitalise on this position, the UK needs strong science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education. Our Vision for science and maths education makes recommendations aimed at both raising the general level of maths and science knowledge and confidence in the population through primary and secondary school education, and meeting the current and future skills needs of the economy.

One of our recommendations is that all young people should study mathematics and science up to the age of 18. We suggest creating new baccalaureate-style frameworks that encompass vocational and academic learning across a broad range of subjects to age 18. None of the political parties’ manifestos promise to deliver this specifically, although the Labour Party manifesto says that all students will continue to study English and maths to age 18 and that Labour would introduce a Technical Baccalaureate for 16-18 year olds if they are in government after 7 May. In fact, going beyond Labour’s manifesto commitments, Tristram Hunt (shadow secretary of state for education) has said that in government he would consider abolishing GCSEs and instead moving to a single baccalaureate, removing the distinction between academic and vocational paths.

We also highlight the need for a strong supply of specialist science and mathematics teachers and encourage the government to recognise and increase professionalism in teaching. Four of the five main parties have policies relevant to this recommendation.

The Conservative Party plan to recruit and keep the best teachers by introducing bursaries for the most in-demand subjects and continuing to encourage the growth of Teach First. In particular, the Conservatives want to make the UK the best place in the world to study maths, science and engineering which they will achieve by training an extra 17,500 maths and physics teachers over the next five years (see our previous blog post for more detail on this plan). The Conservatives also support the creation of an independent College of Teaching to promote the highest standards of teaching and school leadership.

If successful in the election, the Labour Party will also support plans for a new College of Teaching and they will make Continuous Professional Development compulsory for all teachers. In addition, they will create a new career route for teachers who are expert in their subject.

Similarly, the Liberal Democrats promise to help establish a new profession-led Royal College of Teachers which will oversee qualified teacher status and professional development. In their manifesto they recognise the need to inspire more children to study STEM subjects which they hope to do by encouraging primary schools to have at least one science specialist among their staff and by working to maximise the number of teachers who have degree qualifications in the subjects they teach at a secondary level. They will also continue to support the Teach First programme to attract high calibre graduates into teaching, in particular STEM subjects.

To increase the uptake of science learning at secondary level, UKIP will follow the recommendations of the Campaign for Science and Engineering and require every primary school to nominate (and train, if necessary) a science leader to inspire and equip the next generation.

Of the five manifestos, the Liberal Democrats’ is the only one to include policies which relate to our recommendation to stabilise the curriculum. Their manifesto says, ‘the Liberal Democrats do not believe that Ministers should dictate teaching practice and will not issue instructions about how to structure the school day or what kind of lessons to conduct.’ If the Liberal Democrats remain in government they will establish an independent Education Standards Authority (ESA), entirely removed from Ministerial interference, which will have responsibility for curriculum content and examination standards. Tristram Hunt has also previously promised not to engage in massive curriculum reform but this is not specifically mentioned in the Labour Party manifesto.

In our Vision report we also highlight the importance of ensuring that young people see where science and maths can take them through improved careers awareness and guidance. We recommend that the government maintain investment in large-scale, national programmes and events, delivered locally, which provide students with role models and help teachers and families to develop better engagement with academia and industry.

The Liberal Democrats commit to improving careers advice in schools and colleges and by facilitating links between employers and schools. They will encourage all schools to participate in mentoring programmes that seek to raise aspiration. In particular, they will seek to inspire more children and young people to follow technical and scientific careers through partnership with relevant businesses.

The Labour Party and Conservative Party manifestos also have promising commitments in this area, although they provide slightly less detail. Labour promise to introduce a new, independent system of careers advice, offering personalised face-to-face guidance on routes into universities and apprenticeships (to find out more about the parties’ policies on apprenticeships see our previous elections manifestos post); while the Conservatives will require Job Centre advisers to supplement school and college careers advice.

Higher education

In terms of higher education, the five manifestos present quite varied policies relating predominantly to how universities are funded, including the contentious issue of tuition fees.

The Green Party goes as far as promising to end undergraduate tuition fees and cancel all student debt. In the longer term, they would also consider scrapping fees for postgraduate courses. They would also reintroduce the block grant to universities, with the aim of ensuring teaching and learning are well-supported across the sciences and humanities.

UKIP’s manifesto says that UK students taking approved degrees in STEM subjects will not have to repay their tuition fees on the condition that they work in their discipline and pay tax in the UK for at least five years after completing their degrees.

The Labour and the Conservative manifestos both include previously announced higher education policies in their manifestos. Labour will cut tuition fees from £9,000 to £6,000 and the Conservatives will introduce a national postgraduate loan system for taught masters and PhD courses.

The Liberal Democrats higher education policies are slightly less defined. They promise to establish a review of higher education finance within the next Parliament. The review would cover undergraduate and postgraduate courses, with an emphasis on support for living costs for students, especially from disadvantaged backgrounds.

All five of the main parties make some promising commitments with all of the manifestos recognising the importance of encouraging children and young people to study STEM subjects. However, with the possibility of no party winning an overall majority in the election, it is not clear which commitments the next government will take forward.

  • Mike Taylor

    “One of our recommendations is that all young people should study mathematics and science up to the age of 18.”

    Why? I know plenty of kids who would gain absolutely nothing by being forced to continue with maths and science after their GCSEs, and would learn nothing from except to hate science.

    • Rachael Mann

      Thanks for your comment Mike.

      In our Vision for science and mathematics education, we propose a shift to a broader and more balanced education, based on a baccalaureate-style framework. Maths and science would be important parts of this system, as would vocational subjects, the arts and humanities.

      Of course, a broad new curriculum would need to be carefully designed to meet the needs of all students and to keep them engaged. But we are convinced this shift is possible – and also essential for the future prosperity of the UK and for
      the development of a more informed and equitable society.

    • behrfacts

      I think forcing them to do maths is probably more acceptable than forcing them to do science and the issue is for how long. Many engineering degree courses now accept students without the necessary level of maths and provide additional support tailored to their specific needs.